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Red Sox starting pitchers and the nine-inning curse

For Red Sox starters, going the distance might be an achievement best avoided.

Tom Szczerbowski

Looking for a crackpot theory that confuses correlation and causation and is couched in superstition? I've got just the thing!

Red Sox pitchers should stop going nine innings because it only leads to disaster.

Remember last week when Clay Buchholz fired off nine innings of shutout ball, striking out 12 Astros? Remember how impressive he looked, and how convinced we all were that he was back in earnest? Now look at his last two starts. Sixteen hits and nine runs (eight earned) in twelve innings, with as many walks (four) as strikeouts. Not exactly the convincing follow-up Red Sox fans were either expecting or hoping for.

The thing is...this has become common practice these last two years. This is the fourth time a Red Sox starting pitcher has managed to last nine innings on the mound since the beginning of the 2013 season, and the fourth time that such a performance has led right into a slump.

In 2013, it was Jon Lester. It's easy to forget just how strong he was to start the season, but Lester held a 3.30 ERA heading into his May 10th start against the Blue Jays. That night he went the distance, allowing just one hit in the process. His next start wasn't too bad, either, but the game after that was the start of the eight-game slump that even had some fans questioning whether or not the Red Sox would pick up his option for 2014.

Lester's is the most dramatic case, but John Lackey has been bit by the nine-inning bug in both 2013 and 2014. Interestingly, neither of his performances were complete game shutouts, which keeps this curse from having a snappy name. In 2013, Lackey allowed one run in nine innings of work against the Orioles on September 19, then was tagged for three homers against the Rockies before surrendering four runs in five innings of work in Game 2 of the ALDS.

In 2014 he didn't allow a run in his nine innings of work, but that was the game where the Red Sox didn't so much as manage a run until the tenth, when they walked off on back-to-back homers from David Ortiz and Mike Napoli. Sure enough, in Lackey's next start, he coughed up seven runs to the Mariners, then nine more to the Yankees and Orioles, only finally righting the ship in recent weeks.

Is there a lesson to be learned here? Probably not. You can make guesses about the rotation's endurance (or lack thereof) and say this is a conditioning problem for the trainers to look into. You can say we need to get relievers into the ninth inning no matter how strong the starter has been. But chances are this is little more than a coincidence made all-the-more-noticeable by how jarring the change of pace is.

Still...if John Farrell is a superstitious man, maybe the eighth inning shuold be the limit.